Rochester women, accused of helping terrorists, released after court hearing

Hawo Hassan
Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, seen here in a July 2009 photo, was arrested Thursday along with friend Amina Farah Ali, and charged with providing material support to an organization in Somalia called al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

When FBI agents a year ago searched Amina Farah Ali's Rochester home where she collected used clothing to send to the needy in Somalia, it left her feeling shaken and violated.

At the time, she told MPR News she didn't understand how authorities could show up at a person's home "for no reason."

Federal authorities on Thursday announced their reason for that search, charging Ali and another Rochester woman with providing material support to an organization in Somalia called al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.

Ali, 33, and her friend, Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, were arrested Thursday and made their initial appearances in federal court on Thursday afternoon. According to the indictment filed in federal court in Minnesota, at least $8,600 of the money the two women were ostensibly raising for the needy was instead directed to al-Shabaab. Some donations were solicited in teleconference calls during which the women were up front about their intentions, authorities said.

Ali allegedly told listeners to "forget about the other charities" and focus on "the jihad." She allegedly said it was not the time to help the poor and needy in Somalia; instead, Ali said it was time to help the mujahideen, or holy warriors, the indictment said.

The indictment said after the FBI searched Ali's home on July 13, 2009, Ali contacted an unindicted co-conspirator and said she had been "questioned by the enemy." She told the person not to accept calls from anyone.

The indictment also says Hassan made false statements to FBI agents.

After their appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes on Thursday afternoon, both Ali and Hassan were released.

Several other women greeted both with hugs when they were released. Ali and Hassan told reporters that they aren't terrorists and were only trying to help the poor Somali people.

During the hearing earlier, Ali initially told Keyes she didn't understand why she was arrested.

"I don't know, maybe because of my faith: I'm Muslim," she told the judge.

The judge asked her further questions, and through an interpreter she said she adamantly denied the accusations but understood the charges.

"I'll tell the truth because I'm afraid of God and I never lie," she said. Ali and Hassan are the only women charged in a case that now has 21 defendants from at least three different states -- Minnesota, Alabama and California.

The women, both naturalized U.S. citizens, are both natives of Somalia. They have been open about their efforts to collect money and used clothing to send to Somalia to benefit needy refugees trying to escape violence there.

"This is home care. Homeless people," Hassan told MPR News in July 2009, shortly after the FBI searched her apartment. "They don't have shelter. They don't have food. No medicine. No relatives. No children. So we opened a home care in Somalia."

Hassan Mohamud, a St. Paul imam, said that the picture of Ali that emerged in today's court documents conflicts with her reputation among many Somali-Minnesotans. He said he's not convinced that the government's accusations against Ali are true.

"Every activist knows her," Mohamud said. "You'd always hear, 'Amina from Rochester is helping people back home.'"

Ali's nickname in Arabic means "mother of needy people," Mohamud said. He said she took great risks by sending food, medication and clothing to refugees fleeing the violence of Mogadishu.

But Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the women lied about why they were raising money.

"These two women raised money to support al-Shabab through door-to-door solicitations and teleconferences in Somali communities in Minneapolis, Rochester and other locations in the United States as well as in Canada," Holder said during a news conference in Washington, D.C. "In some cases, these funds were raised under the false pretense that they would be used to aid the needy and the poor."

The indictments claim the women funneled money to al-Shabab through money-wiring businesses, known as "hawalas."

Last year, the FBI raided three Minneapolis money-wiring businesses. Those searches, however, do not appear to be directly tied to the investigation of the American fighters.

In a separate indictment released Thursday, Holder charged 10 Somali men who once lived in Minneapolis with providing material support to al-Shabab and conspiring to kill, maim and injure people abroad. Most of the men had been charged previously, and the indictments expand on those charges. The men are still at large and believed to be in Somalia.

U.S. Attorney for Minnesota B. Todd Jones said people from the local Somali community provided important tips in the investigations. "We had community support and we continue to have community support," he said. "We have lots of channels of communication, so that if somebody's going to break the law we know about it, and hopefully prevent bad things from happening."

The FBI says the case is not over, and that today's indictments illustrate the breadth of the investigation. Until now, much of the focus has been on the individual travelers who allegedly left for Somalia to fight, or others who are thought to have assisted in the men's departures.

"We look at all the aspects -- recruiting, radicalization, and support networks," said FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson, who is the supervisory agent in charge of the investigation.

About 20 men -- all but one of Somali descent -- left Minnesota from December 2007 through October 2009 to join al-Shabab. Since then, 19 people have been charged in Minnesota in the case. Most are U.S. citizens.

The charges include fighting for a terrorist organization, recruiting others to join al-Shabab, making false statements to federal agents, and committing passport fraud.

Signs of top-down recruitment have yet to emerge in the case.

According to an earlier affidavit, one of the alleged facilitators from Minnesota was Cabdulaahi Faarax. He allegedly told other young men at a secret meeting in Minneapolis that he experienced "true brotherhood" while fighting jihad in Somalia, and encouraged them to do the same.

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